Matt Gemkow, the author of this content section at Select Fitness USA, boasts more than 15 years of fitness experience. He started out in sports and athletic training for many years and has since 2014 transitioned into heavy-weight training and bodybuilding. As a result, he has become one of the most experienced fitness equipment experts out there, and a valuable source of information.
Leg Press Vs. Hack Squat | The Differences, Pros, and Cons
If you're someone who's serious about leg day like we are, you've probably come across the leg press and the hack squat machine.
Both exercises are great for building strength, size, and definition in the lower body.
However, there are some key differences between them that can make a significant impact on your leg workout.
In this article, we'll compare the leg press and hack squat, discuss their benefits and drawbacks, and help you decide which exercise is right for you.
Whether you're a beginner or an experienced lifter, this article will provide you with all the information you need to make an informed decision about which exercise to include in your leg training routine.
Leg Press Vs. Hack Squat Main Differences
When it comes to leg day, the leg press and the hack squat machine are two popular contenders for which machine to use.
Both exercises target the lower body effectively and safely, but there are some key differences between them that make them unique.
The leg press is a machine-based exercise that involves pushing weights away from the body, driving with the feet.
On the other hand, the hack squat machine requires the user to squat down with the weight loaded on their shoulders, and pushing upwards away from a foot plate.
Here are a few main differences between the leg press and the hack squat machine:
- The Leg Press is loaded with weight and a foot plate is forced away from the user with their feet.
The hack squat machine is shoulder loaded so the user must squat down and push their body away from the foot plate.
The hack squat machine is a more difficult exercise, and engages more leg, core, and back muscles.
The leg press machine is effective for isolating the legs and achieving 100% muscle fatigue of the lower body.
The hack squat machine mimics the conventional barbell squat, while the leg press does not.
The Hack Squat Machine
The hack squat is the best machine based imitation of the barbell squat.
One of the biggest advantages of regular barbell squats is the ability to engage not only the legs, but also various stabilization muscles, your core, and back.
This machine shifts places the load onto your shoulders, much like a conventional barbell squat, but reduces the strain on external muscles groups.
As a result, the hack squat places a greater emphasis on your quads, glutes, and hamstrings, reducing the risk of injury, and poor form as you load more weight and progress through a workout.
The hack squat machine is a fantastic substitute or supplement to the traditional barbell squat.
The Leg Press Machine
Similar to the hack squat exercise, the leg press is also an excellent machine for building lower body strength and muscle mass.
The leg press is popular in many gyms, and for good reason. It effectively targets and isolates the lower body with supreme safety and ability to overload.
Like the hack squat, the leg press allows you to load up a significant amount of weight without necessarily needing a spotter or a barbell and squat rack.
This is beneficial for those who may struggle with traditional squats, anyone looking to supplement their leg workouts with a high volume or heavy weight exercise.
How to Use The Hack Squat Machine
Using a hack squat machine can if you have not used one before can seem intimidating, but with a little know-how, you'll be hack squatting like a pro in no time!
Not all hack squat machines will be exactly the same, but generally they seem to function in a similar way across the board.
Follow these steps, and you'll be on your way to leg gains with the hack squat machine:
1. Set the WeightMake sure the weight is set to an appropriate level for you to begin with.
2. Position Yourself in the Machine
Stand facing away from the machine and place your bottom, back, and shoulders against the back pad and shoulder pad. This will be the position your upper body is in for the entire movement.
3. Set Your Foot Position
When your upper body is in position, place you feet in a comfortable position for the best range of motion or target muscle group. We go into great detail about foot positions for leg press machines and hack squats in another article.
4. Push the Weight Up Slightly to Release the Safety Bar
If there's a safety catch, release it before starting the exercise. Generally on a most hack squat machines there will be one lever or a lever on both sides of your head that you will pull to the side to release the mechanism, allowing you to squat down.
5. Brace Your Core, and Squat Down to a depth that's comfortable or at least 90 degrees at the angle of your knees.
Slowly lower yourself down by bending your knees and hinging at the hips. Keep your weight on your heels and come down until your glutes are parallel to your knees, roughly.
6. Drive Your Feet into the Foot Plate, and Push Your Body Back Up
Drive through your heels and reverse the movement. Push through your glutes, heels, and legs, while keeping your core engaged and tight.
7. Take a Deep, Sharp Breath, and brace for the Next Rep.
It is important to breath in-between each rep. Otherwise you run the risk of performing poorly during the set, a number of injuries, as well as passing out during a set. Always Breath!!
With these steps in mind, you'll be able to confidently use a hack squat machine and build your lower body strength in no time!
Hack Squat Pros and Cons
Hack Squat Machine Pros
The following is a short and concise list of all the pros and benefits of the hack squat machine:
- Reduced spinal loading compare to barbell squats.
- Great lower body isolation.
- Direct carry over from the barbell squat movement, meaning it helps improve you squat directly.
- Beginner / Noobie friendly. They are quick simple to learn and allow for very light weight load.
- Built in safety. In case of emergency, most hack squat machines have safety precautions to keep the user safe in case of emergency.
- Versatile foot positioning for different target muscles.
Hack Squat Machine Cons
- Limited range of motion for certain users.
- Machine dependency. Relying on any one machine is never a great idea, although the hack squat machine is great, it is not the be all, end all of leg day for you.
- Limited Variety. While there are small variations you can perform with a hack squat machine, the hack squat machine is designed mostly for just one type of movement.
- Occasional Knee Stress. Some people find that the hack squat machine hurts their knees. This may be viewed as a con of the hack squat machine.
Mistakes to Avoid On the Hack Squat Machine
The hack squat machine is designed to provide a safe and effective way to imitate the squat movement which is does well.
This is not to say there is nothing else to consider when using a hack squat machine. Here is a list of things to remember when using the hack squat to stay safe.
- Don't place too much weight on the machine without knowing what you're capable of. While if you fail a rep, and ditch the weight you probably won't get injured, but for the least possible risk, start light and work your way up.
- Depth is good, but going too deep can cause you to get stuck at the bottom of the rep, or involve too much of your calves. If you heels come up off the foot plate at the bottom of the rep, you've gone to low for your current mobility.
- Try your best not to lock your knees out completely at the top of the rep. There is a nightmare in the fitness industry where you get to the top of the rep, lock your knees out, and then they hyperextend backwards break your knees. Ouch. For the best quad pump, and safety, simple leave a little space between the fully locked out position, and where you end you rep.
How to Use the Leg Press Machine
Using a leg press machine is a great way to work out your lower body, but it’s important to use proper form to avoid injury and ensure effective training. Follow these step-by-step instructions to use a leg press machine correctly:
Situate yourself properly on the leg press machine. Your back and head should rest against the back support, and your feet should be planted with heels flat on the footplate. Your butt should be flat against the seat of the machine.
Decide which foot position you will use. Generally, shoulder with apart, with the knees and legs forming a 90 degree angle is a good starting point. Refer to the leg press foot position guide for more detail
Un-engage the safety mechanism. Depending on what type of leg press you're working out on, it may be in a different position. Find this before you do the set.
Push the platform away from you, driving through your feet while keeping your heels flat on the footplate.
Pause at the top of the movement, but do not lock out your knees out completely. Ensure that they remain slightly bent and neither caving in nor outward.
Inhale as you slowly reverse the motion and bring the footplate back down into the starting position.
Keep your back flat against the pad and your feet flat against the plate as you repeat for the desired amount of reps.
By following these steps, you can perform a leg press with proper form and effectively target your lower body muscles. Remember to start with lighter weights and gradually increase as you progress in your training.
Leg Press Machine Pros and Cons
The leg press machine is a time tested classic leg day machine for isolation of the lower body.
There are numerous types of leg press machines, although they all provide a similar range of motion and movement pattern. They mostly all feature back supported, seated positions, with a large foot plate that the user drives away from them. Below is a list of the pros and cons of the leg press machine.
Leg Press Machine Pros
- Simple and Easy to Learn. The leg press is very simple for any range of users. One could easily learn proper form in one day, and progress from there.
- Isolated lower body workout. The leg press machine specifically targets the muscles in the lower body with little strain on other muscles.
- Low impact. The leg press machine is known to place very little strain on your joints and has a low impact style of training the lower body.
- Controlled movement. The leg press machine guides the movement of the legs, making it easier to maintain proper form and avoid injury.
- Ability to Overload. 99.9% of people can leg press more weight safely and effectively, then they can barbell squat.
- Versatility. Not only there multiple types of leg press machines, there are different foot positions and weight increments available on most leg press machines, allowing for a variety of workouts and progressions.
- Machine Availability. Nearly all gyms or exercise facilities will feature some type of leg press.
Leg Press Machine Cons
- Limited muscle activation. While the leg press machine can be effective for targeting the lower body muscles, it doesn't engage the same amount of muscle groups as compound movements like barbell squats.
- Limited functional application. The leg press machine is great for isolating the legs for muscular strength and size, but may not translate as well to functional movements in everyday life or sports.
- Limited stability activation. Because the machine guides the movement of the legs, it doesn't require as much core activation or stability which is a benefit is some instances and a con in others.
- Limited calorie burn. If you're looking to burn calories and fat on the leg press, you are unfortunately on the wrong machine. The leg press will burn very limited amount of calories and is more used for muscle strength and gaining size.
Mistakes to Avoid With the Leg Press Machine
Similar to the hack squat, there are some precautions to follow that will help you out with safety and getting an effective workout.
The leg press machine is a great way to isolate the leg muscles, but should be taken seriously when it comes to safety and best practice's.
- Using too much is always a "no no". Start light and work your way up when using the leg press so you can gauge the best amount of weight for you to be using on the leg press machine.
- Going to deep or not deep enough. On the leg press it is easy to hit a depth that just might not be effective enough for the best workout. Its also easy to go way too deep and end up overstretching muscles, or even getting stuck at the bottom. Find a good balance of depth, and proper range of motion for the best leg press workout.
- Never lock your legs out 100%. This is an easy way to over extend your legs and seriously injure your knees. Its tempting to take a rest at the top of a rep by locking your knees out, placing the weight on your knee joint, but please refrain as this is an easy way to injure yourself.
- Not breathing properly. Not breathing properly through your set of leg press is the recipe for poor performance during a set, injured muscles, and fainting mid set from holding your breath. Always remember to breath!
Leg Press Vs. Hack Squat Muscles Worked
The hack squat machine and leg press machine target mostly the lower body muscles like the quads (Rectus femoris, Vastus lateralis, Vastus medialis, Vastus intermedius), the hamstrings (
Its also known, that in comparison to the leg press, the hack squat machine will engage more of the core, back, and calf muscles.
The movement requires a bit more stabilization and bracing of the core which will bring some secondary muscles into the equation.
With that said, both the hack squat and leg press are made for isolation of the lower body and do so safely and effectively.
When to Use the Leg Press Vs. Hack Squat Machine
When to Use the Leg Press
For anyone looking to strengthen and gain size in their lower body, the leg press is a legit option in any setting.
It can be used as a compound exercise with heavy weight, or a high volume hypertrophy based workout with many reps at a lighter weight.
If your focus is on improving your back squat, you should perform your squats firstly in the leg day workout. Add the leg press into the workout towards the end to burn out the legs with lots and lots of reps, with no concern of poor form or risk of injury in a compound movement.
If your main goal for the entire leg workout is hypertrophy, or you are not keen for squats, do your leg press sets in the beginning of the workout and bring yourself as close to burnout as possible.
When to Use the Hack Squat
Hack squats are ideal for anyone looking to work on their lower body, improve their squat, or utilize a machine to mimic a back squat style leg workout.
The hack squat can be performed as a main exercise or supplemental exercise.
The squat is great both replacing the back squat, and also adding too it with a high volume style with many reps.
The hack squat and leg press can be done on the same day to focus on overall leg development if wish to do so.
Leg Press Vs. Hack Squat Conclusion
Overall, the leg press and hack squat machine are pretty similar, with a few key differences.
The leg press requires the user to push a foot plate away from them, and the hack squat has a shoulder loaded weight capacity that directly mimics the back squat.
Each machine has their benefits and cons, but can be used to effectively target and isolate the lower body muscles for day to day benefits, muscular strength, size, as well to benefit other compound movements like the squat.
Whichever one you prefer, always remember to take the necessary precautions and maintain a safe technique.
If you're interested in a leg press, check out our collection featuring leg press machines from numerous brands.
If you interested in a hack squat, checkout our collection of various squat machines.